Early into “Sicario,” director Denis Villeneuve’s grisly thriller about the American government’s response to Mexican drug cartels, a convoy of black SUVs cross the U.S.-Mexico border into the city of Juárez. It is unclear at first, to the audience and to FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who’s been recruited by another agency for seemingly extrajudicial operations, whether this one is a rescue mission or a kidnapping. What is certain, though, is the sense of dread. The sequence, paying special attention to the synchronized movements of the vehicles, evokes a funeral procession, and soon the bodies begin piling up. All that is missing is the hearse.
If you’ve seen Mr. Villeneuve’s previous two films, “Prisoners” and “Enemy,” you know that his scenes are meticulously composed. What is absent from the frame, in his movies, is just as important as what is included. In “Sicario,” the pervading theme is violence, even though the film more often than not denies us the act of killing. When an execution is explicitly depicted, it is unceremonious, matter-of-fact. One torture scene is merely suggested, while another begins at the end of the ordeal. Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, it seems, are more interested in the aftermath of violence: the corpses themselves (they are many) and the emotional devastation of their living kin.
“Sicario,” to varying degrees of success, argues that all violence is personal, that one death begets another, and an aggressive military response to an already bloody world only exacerbates the issue. Macer, dismayed by the futile efforts of her FBI job, participates in this approach because she thinks she can make a difference in the war on drugs. She is assured of this by a superior officer played with winning sadism by Josh Brolin (he’s that good). They are both wrong, Macer comes to learn, but you get the sense that Brolin’s character never really believed it at all. The mysterious operative, Alejandro (an excellent Benicio del Toro), has an entirely different motive.
The cast and the filmmaking are extraordinary, and Villeneuve has once again partnered with the renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins. The movie’s standout action sequence is a shootout that takes place in an underground tunnel used to smuggle drugs across the border. Deakins, expertly contrasting night vision with sparsely lighted corridors, conjures a hellscape. The land itself, seen in ominous bird’s-eye-view shots early in the movie, feels poisoned and doomed under the brutal Mexican sun.
That “Sicario” doesn’t make an entirely cohesive argument is obviously not for a lack of technical skill. Nor is it because Macer, and thus the audience, is left in the dark about the specifics of operations until the film’s end. Blunt is not to blame either. In every scene, she is remarkable. But Macer, as the movie’s moral compass — she constantly questions the legality of the missions — offers only a general outrage at, instead of a specific rebuke to, the violation of jurisdictional statutes and a nation’s sovereignty. Her point of view most certainly reflects the hopelessness of ending a conflict that spans vast territories and local economies, but as drama, it isn’t very compelling.